State Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, says a current Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe into his and a colleague’s efforts to help constituents disciplined by the state is nothing more than a case of “ruffled feathers.” Ford and state Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, have come under scrutiny for their roles in helping three area nurses have their state licenses returned after they were revoked last year.
“When my constituents are disciplined, I want to make sure they have had their due process,” Ford said. “I would have done it for anyone in my district.”
The Tennessee Nursing Board suspended the licenses of three nurse practitioners after it determined they had failed to properly order diagnostic tests for patients before prescribing painkillers and continued to prescribe pain medication to patients identified by law enforcement agents as illegally selling the drugs.
The board decided in May to restore the nurses’ licenses after hearing petitions claiming that it had not heard all the details about two deceased patients. Ford believes the final outcome of the case proves his actions were justified.
“I help people and I’ve been successful at helping people,” Ford told me last week.
The TBI probably wouldn’t be looking into this matter if it wasn’t for Shipley boasting (as reported by the Kingsport Times-News) that he was the “rascal behind the scenes that made it happen.”
For his part, Ford said he held no “closed-door meetings” or used bully tactics to get officials with the state Department of Health to reconsider disciplinary actions against the nurses. “I never at any time asked board members to rescind their action,” Ford said. “I just asked that they look at all of the evidence.”
In case you haven’t heard, Ford is a retired Major League Baseball umpire. He is grateful to have a pretty good pension from baseball, so he takes pride in the fact he is serving in Nashville to help people. He doesn’t care about amassing political power or making money. The money part is understandable since a Tennessee lawmaker is paid a modest salary of $19,000 a year.
Ford says he is all about helping his constituents, regardless of their economic circumstances or political leanings. And he says he does it without reservation or intimidation.
“I don’t try to push people around,” Ford told me Thursday. “If I’m successful at getting water projects or road projects for my district, it’s not because I bullied someone. I try to work with people in Nashville.”
Again, if you don’t already know, Ford is a retired major league umpire (he has also refereed some big-time NCAA men’s basketball games). And while professional sports have often been touched by wrongdoing on the part of athletes, owners and officials, Ford said there’s never been a scandal involving MLB umpires. I have no doubt that’s true, but it doesn’t mean umpires don’t blow a call every now and then. Just ask the Atlanta Braves, who lost a 19-inning heartbreaker to the Pittsburgh Pirates last week because of a bad call at home plate.
The question is: Did Ford overstep his boundaries as a state lawmaker when he interceded on the part of the disciplined nurses? That’s what TBI officials are trying to determine. Ford says he has been assured by the TBI he “has nothing to fear” from its investigation. The Washington County lawmaker also told me he is confident that he did nothing unethical in the case.
“If they say I did, then there’s a lot of lawmakers who have helped their constituents who are also in trouble,” Ford said.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey was quick to come to the defense of Ford and Shipley, telling reporters that legislative oversight of state regulatory boards must continue. Gov. Bill Haslam told the Associated Press he is awaiting the outcome of the TBI investigation in the case, but added he doesn’t “like it when people use their leverage to accomplish a personal agenda.”
Ford said he was disappointed that Haslam did not speak up on his behalf. “The governor should come out and make a strong statement that he knows me and know I wouldn’t try to bully anyone,” he said.
Ford’s critics might say it’s not so much that he tried to help his constituents as it was how he went about doing it. In addition to meeting with health officials, Ford also introduced legislation that would create a special legislative committee to hear appeals from those who have had their professional licenses revoked or have been fined $1,000 or more by a state regulatory board. Ford said he later scrapped the bill after learning its “fiscal note” (cost to implement) made it impossible to pass this year.
The Jonesborough lawmaker says he understands the role of state regulatory boards, but believes they need legislative oversight. He said professionals who come before these boards need to be able to tell their side of the story. “There are two sides to every story,” Ford said. “The truth is usually somewhere in the middle.”
We could soon learn if the TBI feels the same.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.